Beginning to see the light

How green is your local DIY superstore? The answer: not very. But homeowners are waking up to a new breed of builders' merchants who sell a vast range of products with impeccable ecological credentials
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Environmentally-concerned home owners are beginning to wake up to a new kind of builders merchant supplying DIY materials that enable them to tread more lightly on our fragile planet. Ecological builders merchants specialise in natural materials that take little energy to make, generate minimal amounts of greenhouse gases, are healthier to use and reduce pollution.

Environmentally-concerned home owners are beginning to wake up to a new kind of builders merchant supplying DIY materials that enable them to tread more lightly on our fragile planet. Ecological builders merchants specialise in natural materials that take little energy to make, generate minimal amounts of greenhouse gases, are healthier to use and reduce pollution.

But if you want to do up your home, and you go down to your local DIY superstore and ask about the environmental impact of their various products, you'll probably get a few leaflets and little more.

Do a search on the word "environment" on B&Q's website and you will get no results at all: both B&Q and Homebase hide details of their environmental programmes in the About Us sections at the bottom.

At Construction Resources, a large builders' merchants in Southwark, south London, advice on the environmental impact of a whole range of construction products is available over the counter and in regular seminars.

And the showroom itself is a testament to environmental construction.

"We wanted to show living demos in the building," explains Richard Handyside, the founder. "All the walls are decorated with natural paints, natural materials are used for insulation and we harvest the rainwater from the roof to flush the loos."

If you imagine the showroom looks like a hippy commune with army camp latrines, you couldn't be more wrong. The old Victorian warehouse has been restored in a cutting-edge contemporary style, with not a trace of in-your-face hairy natural materials or horrible home-made plumbing. It is a great demonstration that you can be environmentally sensitive and stylish.

Home owners wanting to upgrade according to ecological principles should look first at the energy lost through the walls and windows, Handyside says.

"The first thing you need to look at is insulation. British regulatory standards have improved but are still very low relative to many countries," he says. "For a relatively small investment you can get a good payback."

Conventional insulating materials are ecologically unsound, however. Rockwool and glass matt consume natural resources and take lots of energy to make. The ecological alternatives are flax, cellulose made of recycled paper and, somewhat surprisingly, wool.

"Natural insulation costs more to buy but is often a small part of the cost of the work compared with the labour. With wool or flax the insulation can be applied without wearing the gloves and masks necessary with rockwool or glass," Handyside explains.

The next step might be double glazing, using timber from sustainable forests. This, however, should not be done unless you were going to replace the windows anyway as the energy savings are not large enough to justify the large investment.

When the time comes to redecorate, natural paints eliminate oil-based solvents. Conventional paint factories are notorious polluters, and their products can cause illness and environmental damage when the brushes are washed out into the drains.

Natural paints based on emulsions or natural oils such as turpentine and linseed oil are entirely non-toxic and have other advantages too, Handyside says:

"Natural paints don't have solvents and keep the surface breathable so the structure can absorb moisture and store it in the wall. A lot of modern synthetic paints seal the wall. Just a few people coming in a room generate astonishing amounts of moisture."

The most surprising ecological material is unfired clay - just earth with some sand. They cannot carry weight, but can be used to infill a timber frame. "Unfired clay has thermal mass to absorb heat during the day and dissipate it at night, like storage radiators. It is also good for sound insulation," Handyside explains.

Water is the other natural material that we waste in truly horrifying amounts. The latest water-saving wheeze is "rain harvesting".

A rain harvester is a trap attached to the downpipe from the roof that filters and diverts rainwater to a butt or storage tank. The water is used to fill the washing machine, flush the loos and water the lawn.

Rain harvesters can be easily fitted to existing buildings and need little maintenance, while making a real difference to a household's consumption of precious potable water.

Geoffrey Philipps is an example of someone using ecological building technology to create luxury holiday apartments that don't harm the environment.

The coach house at his ancestral family home, Slebech Park, near Haverfordwest, is currently being converted into 12 apartments with a restaurant, pool and spa. The pool and spa are partly underground, sheltered and insulated with a layer of earth.

Rainwater from the roofs and yard is collected, filtered, and used to flush the lavatories. The buildings are heavily insulated, partly with wool, and heat is provided by a biomass burner fed with woodchips harvested from the surrounding estate.

And visitors are expected to do their bit for the environment too. "When people come here they will be asked to plant a tree to compensate for the carbon dioxide generated by their car on the drive down," Philipps says. "We will provide a sapling and a spade. It will help bring their ecological audit back in line and puts the message across."

Meanwhile, ordinary householders are adopting ecologically sound technology where possible, he believes: "People are slowly introducing elements rather than eco-hippy castles everywhere."

But ecologists should not be carried entirely away by technology, believes Joe Wild, a former building surveyor and founder of Ecomerchant, in Kent. Reusing old stuff with its store of embodied energy is just as important.

"We consider reusing existing materials to be at the core of the environmental business," he says. But the downside is that Ecomerchant's premises have a bit of the Steptoe about them.

"At first sight visitors to our yard see a bigger stock of reclaimed bricks, timber and so on than anything else because we have to store it, whereas new materials can be ordered as needed," he says.

Both Wild and Handyside are keeping their heads above water financially, but are seeing a gradual increase in interest in ecologically sound construction.

"We have been working a lot with housing associations, which are becoming seriously interested in the environment," Wild says. "They are concerned with long term costs of ownership."

Mass builders are getting the message more slowly, but as building regulations get tighter and energy costs increase they will adopt more environmentally friendly methods as well, Wild predicts.

The development at Slebech Park is due to open in autumn 2005 - for details ring 07079 313004.

Keeping it natural - how to go green at home

One of the best sources of reliable information on environmentally-sensitive building is the Centre for Alternative Technology at Machynlleth, Wales, which has a free information and help line plus a comprehensive website.

Charlotte Cosserat is manager of the information and advice service at the centre. Here are her top tips for making your house more environmentally friendly:

Go for materials with low embodied energy - the energy taken getting it made and transported to you. Timber and other natural materials are generally good; brick, cement, steel and glass have high embodied energies. Use water-based paint with low volatile organic compounds and look for the VOC rating on the tin. Make sure timber comes from sustainable sources. The FSC mark of the World Wildlife Fund's Forest Stewardship Council is the best indication.

Choose the green electricity option from your power company. Install draught-proofing and thermostats on every radiator


The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), Machynlleth, Powys, SY20 9AZ offers a free environmental information phone line and website 0845 330 8373,;

The Association for Environment Conscious Building (AECD), is a professional builders' club but has lots for individual home owners including a discussion forum,;

Green Building Press supplies books on ecological building technology and 'Building for a Future' which is a magazine, available online,

Ecological builders' merchants: Construction Resources, 16 Great Guildford Street, London SE1 0HS, Tel: 0207450 2211,; Ecomerchant, Head Hill Road, Goodnestone, Faversham, Kent ME13 9BU, Tel: 01795 530 130,;

Green Building Store, 11 Huddersfield Road, Meltham, Holmfirth, West Yorkshire HD9 4NJ.

Tel: 01484 854 898,

Green Shop/Rain Harvesting Systems, Bisley, Stroud, Gloucestershire GL6 7BX. Tel: 01452 770629 and

Natural Building Technologies, The Hangar, Worminghall Road, Oakley, Buckinghamshire HP18 9UL. Tel: 01844 338 338